A Brighter Look at Milgram's Obedience Study

Mama Liberty's picture

We've been talking about research, mostly medical/drug recently, and I thought this was a logical extension of that discussion - but so different it needed its own thread.

A Brighter Look at Milgram's Obedience Study
Mises Daily, by Michael Kitchens

If the legitimacy of the state arises from the people's consent, then the prospects for a free society largely depend on the psychological processes of the individual members of society. That is to say, if people's psychological processes are designed for a social order in which there exists an institution that uses force to acquire resources and that monopolizes protection and defense — to use Rothbard's description of the state — then the prospects of a free society stand little chance. If, however, people's psychological processes are designed best to maintain order through bottom-up techniques (e.g., by natural social order developing through a mutual and cultural acceptance of what is appropriate for coexistence in peace), then Rothbard's vision stands a very good chance. (see the rest at the source)

I had read quite a bit about Milgram's study long ago, but never formed any sense of urgency or alarm over those conclusions myself. This article caught my eye because, I think, it gave substance to some of my own misgivings of the interpretations of that original study. Anyone who watches large groups of peaceful, cooperative people over any length of time sees the "authority figure" and obedience to authority as an infrequent thing rather than the norm. I see it becoming more the norm when peaceful and cooperative interaction are thwarted by coercion and violence without much opportunity for self defense.

Of course mine is a simplistic analysis, but that's how I see the general picture. This article certainly supports my optimism for a truly voluntary society.

Thanks, Sunni

Thanks for adding those tags. I almost always forget. This is the only place I use them! :)

The Experiment was Meaningless

The subjects were isolated from each other, so that each lone subject was confronted by the authority figure and there was no communication between more than one subject at a time. So when the subject expressed reservations, it was a lot easier for the authority figure to work on them and wear them down in isolation. Imagine the group dynamics if one person in a group had expressed reservations in the same manner. You might as well generalize from Smith's behavior in Room 101.

Not entirely.

Because of all the hype that still swirls around the Milgram study, I found and read the original publication while in grad school. “The experiment” was not one single study, but actually a series of experiments that were written up and published as one paper. One of the independent variables Milgram investigated was distance between the teacher and “learner”.

Not surprisingly, compliance was highest when the participant was cut off from the “learner”, unable to see or hear him. When the “learner” was seated beside the teacher, within touching distance, compliance dropped—but as I recall, it remained higher than Milgran had expected.

I’m sorry I don’t have the specifics in my head any longer ... in fact, I’ve been debating saying anything about the study, because there is so much misinformation about it. (The Milgram study became one of the metrics I used to evaluate introductory psychology textbooks while I was teaching—if the author(s) couldn’t be arsed to get the facts right on such an infamous experiment, I wasn’t willing to trust them with the rest of the field.)